Big Sur Highway

The stretch of highway which runs along the California coast from the town of Cambria up to the Monterey peninsula must be one of the most spectacular stretches of road in the country.

Highway 1 clings to cliffs over the Pacific. It rises and falls from ocean level to nearly one thousand feet. From that height, the cliffs drop directly into the ocean. Because I drove from south to north, I had the inside lane, for which I was thankful.

For 100 miles, there isn’t a single intersection. There is no gap in the coastal mountain range large enough to allow a road to the interior. A few tiny villages are the only civilization. Quite a change from Los Angeles.

Unlike the completely developed and intolerably overcrowded 300 miles of coast which run from San Diego to Santa Barbara, the Big Sur Highway is pristine, thanks to a series of state parks and national forests, as well as several thousand acres owned by the Hearst Corporation and used for cattle ranching.

The parks are safe from development, but the Hearst heirs are rumored to be in negotiations with developers. Their land is worth billions.

The big attraction on the coast highway this time of year are the elephant seals. The huge blubber sausages bask by the hundreds on the rocks, waking every now and then to belch, snort and gurgle. Their every noise is flatulent, including a call which sounds like a sewer acting up.

On the south end of the highway, the mountains are huge green hills dotted with Hearst’s cattle. The green grass runs right down to the beach. From there, the scenery gets more craggy and more vegetated until just before Monterey you pass through a small grove of ancient Redwoods.

On the day I drove Highway 1, a storm somewhere over the Pacific caused surf warnings on the California coast. As I drove north, the waves grew higher.

It is one thing to see big waves gradually lose steam as they crawl up a sloped beach. It is another to see a fifteen-foot wave crash into a rock wall without slowing down.

I stopped at several viewpoints. Each tended to protrude into the ocean. From your perch, you could see miles of beach on either side. As the waves crashed against the base of the coastal range, bursts of water flew forty feet in the air. It looked for all the world like the beach front was getting bombed. I have never seen such a raw display of nature’s power.

Eventually I spotted a little stretch of sandy beach. I walked a trail down the cliffs, through a protected ravine filled with blooming calla lilies, and out onto the sand. The dangerous-looking turquoise blue waves loomed over me. They looked dangerous. I felt like I was out watching a funnel cloud when I should be in the basement under the steps.

I watched for nearly an hour, always just about to leave, then transfixed by a big wave on the horizon, wanting to see it crash. The anticipation was a little like watching two ace demolition derby drivers take a run at each other at the county fair.

It took me seven hours to drive the 100 miles. I drove like a grandma. I knew I was going slow when pay loader passed me. It was heading to push aside rocks which fell from the cliffs onto the road in the recent earthquake. No snowplows here, just rockplows.

It will probably be years before I drive the Big Sur Highway again, but I would recommend the trip to anybody. Make sure your brakes are good. Start from the south, though, ye prairie dwellers--you want the inside lane!